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Lula takes reins of Brazil, slams Bolsonaro's anti-democratic threats

Bolsonaro rattled the cages of Brazil's young democracy with baseless claims of electoral weaknesses that birthed a violent movement of election deniers.

Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva takes office as Brazil's President in Brasilia
Brazil's new President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva delivers a speech after being sworn in at the National Congress, in Brasilia, Brazil, Jan. 1, 2023.
Jacqueline Lisboa / Reuters
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BRASILIA - Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was sworn in as Brazil's president on Sunday, delivering a searing indictment of far-right former leader Jair Bolsonaro and vowing a drastic change of course to rescue what he called a ruined nation.

In a speech to Congress after officially taking the reins of Latin America's biggest country, the leftist said democracy was the true winner of the October presidential vote, when he ousted Bolsonaro in the most fraught election for a generation.

Bolsonaro, who left Brazil for the United States on Friday after refusing to concede defeat, rattled the cages of Brazil's young democracy with baseless claims of electoral weaknesses that birthed a violent movement of election deniers.

"Democracy was the great victor in this election, overcoming ... the most violent threats to freedom to vote, and the most abject campaign of lies and hate plotted to manipulate and embarrass the electorate," Lula told lawmakers.

He delivered a veiled threat to Bolsonaro, who faces mounting legal risks for his anti-democratic rhetoric and his handling of the pandemic now that he no longer has presidential immunity.

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"We do not carry any spirit of revenge against those who tried to subjugate the nation to their personal and ideological designs, but we will guarantee the rule of law," Lula said, without mentioning his predecessor by name. "Those who erred will answer for their errors."

He also accused Bolsonaro's administration of committing "genocide" by failing to respond properly to the COVID-19 virus that killed more than 680,000 Brazilians.

"The responsibilities for this genocide must be investigated and must not go unpunished," he said.

Lula's plans for government provided a stark contrast to Bolsonaro's four years in office, which were characterized by backsliding on environmental protections in the Amazon rainforest, looser gun laws and weaker protections for indigenous peoples and minorities.

Lula said he wants to turn Brazil, one of the world's top food producers, into a green superpower. He reinforced his commitment to ending deforestation in the Amazon, which surged to a 15-year high under Bolsonaro, while also enlisting its indigenous inhabitants to help protect the forest.

He said he will revoke dozens of Bolsonaro's executive orders loosening firearms laws, which prompted a sharp rise in gun ownership.

"Brazil does not want more weapons, it wants peace and security for its people," he said.

Tight security

Lula's inauguration took place amid heightened security.

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Some of Bolsonaro's supporters have protested that the election was stolen and called for a military coup to stop Lula returning to office in a climate of vandalism and violence.

On Christmas Eve, a Bolsonaro supporter was arrested for making a bomb that was discovered on a truck laden with aviation fuel at the entrance to Brasilia airport, and confessed he was seeking to sow chaos to provoke a military intervention.

Bolsonaro has seen his support among many former allies evaporate due to the anti-democratic protests.

On Saturday night, then-acting President Hamilton Mourao, who was Bolsonaro's vice president, criticized his former boss in a thinly veiled dig for allowing anti-democratic sentiment to thrive after his defeat at the polls.

"Leaders who were supposed to reassure and unite the nation ... allowed silence or inopportune and deleterious protagonism to create an atmosphere of chaos and social disintegration," Mourao said in a speech late on Saturday.

After the swearing-in, Lula left Congress in an open-top Rolls-Royce. He then arrived at the Planalto palace, where he walked up its ramp with a diverse group that included his wife, Chief Raoni Metuktire of the Kayapó tribe, a young Black boy and a disabled man. Lula was then handed the presidential sash - a hugely symbolic act in Brazil that Bolsonaro had repeatedly said he would never do - by a Black woman.

Tens of thousands who had gathered to celebrate on Brasilia's esplanade cheered as Lula wiped away tears.

Lula's election victory marked a stunning political comeback, winning an unprecedented third presidential term after a hiatus that saw him spend a year and a half behind bars on corruption convictions that were later overturned.

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His 580 days in prison reinforced his sense of social justice and convinced him of the need to prioritize ending poverty over boosting profits, allies said.

In his previous years as Workers Party (PT) president from 2003-2010, the former union leader lifted millions of Brazilians from poverty during a commodity boom that buoyed the economy.

Now, he faces the daunting challenge of improving Brazil's stagnant economy while also uniting a country that has become painfully polarized under Bolsonaro.

"A lot is expected of Lula. He'll have the difficult mission to restore normality and predictability in Brazil, and above all to rapidly deliver results that improve the quality of life for its inhabitants," said Creomar de Souza, director of Dharma Political Risk consultancy in Brasilia.

(Reporting by Maria Carolina Marcello, Ricardo Brito, Lissandra Paraguassu, Anthony Boadle and Fernando Cardoso; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Kirsten Donovan)

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